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Oregon Coast Aquarium Develops Landmark Treatment for Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

Published 03/13/23 at 6:53 PM
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Oregon Coast Aquarium Develops Landmark Treatment for Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

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(Newport, Oregon) - Since about 2013, the West Coast of the U.S. has seen much of its sea star population decimated, simply dying off and literally dissolving into the ocean. Hitting its height that year and in 2014, the Oregon coast along with other states saw some 90 percent of them disappear, killed by a still-mysterious disease called sea star wasting syndrome (SSWS). (Photos courtesy Oregon Coast Aquarium)

SSWS turned them into gelatinous piles that were unrecognizable, mysterious objects that hit the ocean floor off this coast and others from Alaska down to Mexico, eventually liquefying into nothing. One integral species, the sunflower sea star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), was hit especially hard. It's now listed as endangered.

Finally, in 2018 the colorful creatures had begun to rebound.

However, even inside the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the famed Newport attraction had dealt with the deadly affliction. Some of their sea stars had died this way.

Now, some staff at Oregon Coast Aquarium appear to have come up with a way to treat them, and with a rather high rate of success. Like the sea star movements themselves, it's a slow, slow process, taking place essentially one sea star at a time.

Unfortunately, it's not something that can be done on a grand scale in the ocean. But it may be a step in the right direction.

“There is no known cure for SSWS, but thanks to the efforts of aquarium staff, there is now an effective treatment,” said aquarium spokesperson Courtney Klug.

For the last two years, aquarist Tiffany Rudek has been developing a means of treatment for ill, stressed or injured sea stars. With a rather high degree of success, she's saved many of these revered echinoderms' lives.

Rudek started off by working closely with jelly specialist Evonne Mochon Collura at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and then submitting a formal plan of treatment after developing and refining several steps. Once narrowed down, they've been posted online so that others around the world can also treat sea stars at their facilities.

What they came up with was somewhat revolutionary, creating protocols that had a few layers, while concentrating on supporting the sea star's immune system. It turns out this is a method that can be used to treat injuries as well as the disease.

Mochon Collura at left, Rudek at right

“When stars show symptoms at the aquarium, such as skin lesions and twisted limbs, they are taken to a quarantine area for Rudek’s treatment,” Klug said. “The stars are placed into a cold water holding area and a buffer containing specific trace elements is applied.”

It's all about giving them an ideal environment to heal. They are then given a probiotic that is specific to invertebrates, one which prevents the growth of harmful bacteria and any type of secondary infection. This includes a bath to remove parasites and fungus.

“This is all completed and repeated with the goal of creating a low stress environment for the stars, and an unwelcoming environment for harmful bacteria and parasites,” Klug said. “So far, this method has proven successful with 17 sea stars of varying species, including the Aquarium’s three sunflower sea stars.”

Rudek's colleague Mochon Collura said her thinking was decidedly out-of-the-box and just what was needed. With a lot of focused, hard work and plenty of creativity, Mocon Collura said, Rudek said it worked like a charm, nursing over two dozen sea stars back to health.

Rudek and Mochon Collura will continue trialing the method and collaborating with other labs and sea star working groups. While the trial is in its early stages, and the sample size is relatively low, Aquarium staff are optimistic with these very promising results.

Rudek is looking forward to the impact the treatment may have in other facilities: “We opted to share this method, because not sharing didn’t feel right,” she said. “There are sea stars dying rapidly, and what we’ve developed is working - there’s a chance it could help so many people and so many stars.” 2820 S.E. Ferry Slip Rd., Newport, Oregon., 541-867-3474.

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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